Executed in April 1888, Le pont de Langlois à Arles is one of a series of views of the Langlois Bridge at Arles that van Gogh painted between mid-March and mid-May of 1888. These pictures are among the most celebrated and recognizable paintings from his sojourn in the South-- the fifteen months that van Gogh spent at Arles represent the pivotal moment in his career, in which he integrated the results of months of experimentation and produced some of his most renowned masterpieces. With their forceful palette and bold design, the Langlois Bridge pictures epitomize his mature style. Van Gogh was justifiably proud of these works, and Ronald Pickvance has pointed out that early in his stay he chose to send Le pont de Langlois à Arles to his brother to illustrate one of the works he had created there. Along with this he sent another, Coin de verger (F 1469), a watercolor after Pink Peach Tree in Blossom (F 394), writing, 'I have sent you sketches of the pictures which are to go to Holland' (letter 474). These two watercolors were the first true glimpses that Theo had had of the kind of art his brother was producing in Arles, showing not only how important the Langlois Bridge sequence was to the artist, but also how historically pivotal Le pont de Langlois à Arles is in its own right.
Van Gogh painted the Langlois Bridge six times during a six week period. The first canvas in the series, now in the Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller in Otterlo, was executed in the middle of March, less than a month after Van Gogh's arrival at Arles (fig. 2). The artist described the picture in a letter to Theo written around the 17th: "As for my work, I brought back a size 15 canvas today. It is a drawbridge with a little cart going over it, outlined against a blue sky--the river blue as well, the banks orange coloured with green grass and a group of women washing linen in smocks and multicoloured caps" (letter 469). A few days later, van Gogh began a second painting of the Langlois Bridge, viewed at sunset with two couples strolling in the foreground. Inclement weather soon forced him indoors, however, and he spoiled the canvas by attempting to finish it in the studio (letters 470-471). This version is known today only from a small surviving fragment (F544; Private collection) and from a sketch that van Gogh included in a letter to Emile Bernard (Private collection). Undeterred, van Gogh made a third painting of the drawbridge (fig. 3) as soon as the rain had stopped, "in gray tones and without figures... as the weather was quite different" (letter 471).
Executed in early April, the present watercolor was van Gogh's fourth painting of the Langlois Bridge. By this time, van Gogh had decided to have Theo send the Otterlo version to the prominent Dutch art dealer Herman Gijsbertus Tersteeg in The Hague. He painted the watercolor for his brother to give him an impression of both the composition and the colors in the picture destined for Tersteeg (letter 474). Shortly thereafter, he also made an oil replica of Tersteeg's painting (F571; Private collection), which he sent to Paris on May 10th, instructing Theo not to sell it but to keep it for his own collection. Three days later, van Gogh painted a sixth and final view of the Langlois Bridge, now in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne (fig. 4; cf. letter 488).
That van Gogh himself thought of the bridge sequence as one of his most successful and important is clear from a letter to his brother Theo describing three paintings, the replica of the Tersteeg version mentioned above and two orchard pictures, that he was sending him: 'If we keep these, I think the price may go up later... Take these three then for your own collection, and do not sell them, for they will each be worth 500 later on' (letter 485).
Erected around 1820 and demolished in 1935, the Langlois Bridge (fig. 1) was one of eleven wooden drawbridges crossing the long canal that linked Arles with the coastal town of Port-de-Bouc to the south. The bridge's official name was the Pont de Réginelle, but it was commonly known as the Pont de Langlois after its keeper. In the inscription on the present painting, van Gogh erroneously referred to it as the Pont de l'Anglais, a corruption of the latter name. The evident fascination that the Langlois Bridge held for van Gogh may be explained in part by its strong Dutch character. Designed by Dutch engineers, the drawbridges that punctuated the Arles-Bouc canal were of a type closely associated with the Netherlands. Moreover, such constructions were a common motif in the work of van Gogh's Hague School contemporaries, such as Jacob Maris (fig. 5). Van Gogh's pictures of the Langlois Bridge are clearly indebted to these models. As Horst Keller has written, "It was as if he had come upon some fabulous beast made of wood and slender rods of iron in this Provençal countryside that could be his own Holland..." (H. Keller, Vincent Van Gogh: The Final Years, New York, 1969, pp. 15-16). In place of the sombre tones typical of the North, however, van Gogh recast the bridge and the surrounding landscape in what he described as "today's palette" of bright orange, yellow, green, and blue (letter W3). As he wrote to Theo from Arles, "Many subjects here are exactly like Holland in character, the difference is in the colour. There is that sulphur-yellow everywhere the sun lights" (letter 488).
It is certainly no coincidence that van Gogh selected one of his Langlois Bridge pictures to send to the Dutch dealer Tersteeg. In 1882, while living in The Hague, Van Gogh had quarrelled with Tersteeg over the latter's criticism of his work. Years later, the wound to his self-esteem still festered. He wrote to Theo of his persistent desire to prove his worth to Tersteeg and his other Dutch detractors: "Colour will persuade them, and I am confident that, by taking the trouble, I will be able to convince them that I understand colour and have a feeling for it" (letter 386). With its quintessentially northern subject matter and decidedly un-northern palette, the Langlois Bridge series must have seemed to van Gogh the perfect vehicle for demonstrating his chromatic mastery to Tersteeg at long last. Unfortunately, his gambit failed. After receiving discouraging news from Theo sometime in May, van Gogh instructed him to remove the dedication to Tersteeg from the Otterlo Pont Langlois and to keep the picture for himself. "In short I had better have nothing to do with him," he concluded of Tersteeg (letter 486).
If van Gogh's choice of the Langlois Bridge as a motif for painting was inspired in part by the landscapes of his Dutch contemporaries, the manner in which he rendered the bridge was indebted to an altogether different source: Japanese prints. In the months before he left Paris for Arles, van Gogh spent countless hours at Samuel Bing's gallery studying Japanese woodcuts and drawings. He purchased as many examples as he could afford and even organized an exhibit of his acquisitions at Le Tambourin, a café on the Boulevard de Clichy patronized largely by artists and writers. He also included depictions of Japanese prints in some of his final Paris paintings, including the portraits of Père Tanguy (F363-364) and Agostina Segatori (F370). Moreover, van Gogh's move to Provence seems to have been motivated largely by his desire to find the "Japan of the South." Describing his train journey from Paris, he recalled how he "peered out to see whether it was like Japan yet" (letter B22); and shortly after his arrival at Arles, he asked Theo to send him Japanese prints to decorate his studio there (letter 534).
Van Gogh's strong interest in Japan and japonism is clearly manifest in the Pont Langlois series. In his depictions of the drawbridge, he abandoned the loose, painterly brushwork of his Paris period for the firm, stylized contours and broad planes of color that he admired in Japanese prints. As he wrote to Theo about the second painting in the series, "I want to manage to get colours into it like stained glass windows, and a good, bold design" (letter 470). In Le pont de Langlois à Arles, van Gogh has even used the medium to mimic some of the flatter, although intense, colours of Japanese prints (writing to his brother he observed that, 'Of course the painted studies are more brilliant in colour' (letter 474)). Watercolor was a medium he seldom employed, and here rather than create a mere copy of an oil, he has created a separate work. Not only are there differences in composition, but he has experimented with his medium, bending it to his own purpose in imitating the texture of his revered Japanese prints. Meanwhile, Le pont de Langlois à Arles's spatial composition and the sharp silhouette of the bridge against the sky further echo the work of the Japanese printmaker Hiroshige, whose Ohashi Bridge in the Rain he had copied shortly before his departure for Arles (fig. 6).
Although van Gogh clearly relished the opportunity that the Pont Langlois afforded him to engage with Dutch and Japanese prototypes, he also seems to have been fascinated by the mechanism of the drawbridge itself. He approached the bridge in a serious and sustained manner, studying it from several different vantage points in a series of drawings (F1416v, 1470-1471). In Le pont de Langlois à Arles and his other finished views of the bridge, he highlights the precise, calligraphic lines of the timber supports and iron cables, which form a conscious counterpoint to the vigorously rendered foliage in the foreground.
Debora Silverman has noted several correspondences between van Gogh's exploration of the drawbridge as a mechanism and his use of an artisanal device of his own: the perspective frame. An apparatus employed to study spatial recession and pictorial design, the perspective frame is mentioned in van Gogh's letters to Theo as early as 1882 (fig. 7) and continued to figure in his working practice during the first part of his stay at Arles (letter 469). In the Langlois Bridge series, van Gogh emphasizes features of the drawbridge that most closely resemble the attributes of the perspective frame. For instance, he consistently includes the diagonal beams on the wings of the bridge, even when his viewing angle would have made them difficult to see. Likewise, in the present picture, he freezes the bridge at the moment when the diagonal tether lines of the wings intersect with the iron cables attached to the upright supports, forming bold X's that recall the criss-crossed threads of the perspective frame. Finally, his placement of a horse-drawn cart in the exact middle of the bridge provides a clear parallel to the centrally converging viewpoint plotted by the artisanal tool.
Alongside its rich web of artistic allusions, the present painting is also noteworthy for its distinguished provenance. The picture was formerly in the collection of Baron Rudolf von Simolin (1885-1945), a prominent patron of the arts in Germany at mid-century. In addition to the van Gogh, von Simolin's collection featured important works by Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Derain, Kokoschka, Liebermann, and Hodler. Von Simolin also owned fifteen paintings by Max Beckmann, including his own portrait (fig. 8), and he remained a key patron of Beckmann long after the Nazis had declared the painter's work to be entartete Kunst ("degenerate art"). Von Simolin's involvement in the art world, moreover, was not limited to his private collection. He was a founding member of the Verein der Freunde of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin and provided the main financial backing to the Neue Pinakothek in Munich for their acquisition of Manet's 1874 masterpiece, La Barque.
We are grateful to Professor Ronald Pickvance for his assistance in the preparation of this catalogue entry.
(fig. 1) The Langlois Bridge at Arles, 1902.
(fig. 2) Vincent van Gogh, Le pont de Langlois, 1888.
Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo.
(fig. 3) Vincent van Gogh, Le pont de Langlois, 1888.
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam.
(fig. 4) Vincent van Gogh, Le pont de Langlois, 1888.
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne.
(fig. 5) Jacob Maris, Drawbridge, 1875.
(fig. 6) Vincent van Gogh, Japonaiserie (after Hiroshige), 1887.
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam.
(fig. 7) Vincent van Gogh, drawing of a perspective frame (letter 223), 1882. Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam.